Agents Provocateurs: ARCo debuts with a subversive blast

ARCo Ensemble (rehearsal photo)

“We are the music-makers and we are the dreamers of dreams”
                                     William Wordsworth (by way of Willy Wonka)

by Jeff Grygny

Saint Kate, the “Arts Hotel” that suddenly popped up in the former Intercontinental building like a midnight mushroom, is now open for business and the curious are welcome to take a peep as well. While the spanking new venue might still be finding its footing, the first impression is of an elegant modern space with high-end sculpture, painting, and photography everywhere proudly in view and playfully peeking out of odd corners—like a closet with a stepladder which you can climb to put your head in a box containing a tiny gallery, or the restaurant secreted away behind a pivoting bookcase. The staff is pretty and courteous, the spaces neither overcrowded nor creepily empty, and the patrons seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s the only place I can recall ever having left a show with a tote bag containing a little bottle of signature champagne. Can the high-concept Arts Hotel make it in the home of Brewers and Brats? Gimmick or no, it gives the town a little class, it’s a lot of fun, and I hope it sticks around.

Not to mention that it has its own resident theater company (a fact that has created quite a buzz in the performing arts community). This, the ARCo Ensemble, makes its opening statement with America Hurrah, a set of three one-act plays by the 60s avant-garde playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie. It’s a choice that reveals a lot about who the company is and what they aspire to be. Under the direction of Dr. Nancy Kresin, a “Transformative Theatre Maven,” the troupe of young professional actors has been rehearsing, training, and developing an ensemble since May. Their efforts have paid off in their tight, athletic performances, seamlessly transforming from character to character, forming score and scenic elements with their voices and bodies. All three plays are briskly-paced, in a style more like clowning than naturalism, and never boring. And though we might often laugh, we might also be left with a gut-wrenching feeling of the existential void.

In the first piece, Interview, van Itallie treats text as music. The players’ constant choreographed movement adds to the choral fugue of overlapping and mutually-enforcing themes that explore the alienation and dehumanization of modern American culture, the hypocrisy of politicians and clergy, and, of course, the anti-war sentiment that is so characteristic of its time. Alas, every one of these themes seems as pertinent to today’s America as they did nearly half a century ago.

After a 15-minute scene change, during which we can listen to beloved counterculture classics from the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Velvet Underground, the next piece, TV, recalls the absurdist banality of Eugene Ionesco. Susie Duecker, JJ Gatesman, and Ian Tully amusingly play out the office politics of media professionals as control-room workers who are utterly disengaged from the vapid programming that the rest of the ensemble acts out behind them. Another scene change, and in the final play, Motel, theater verges on performance art, with a Beckett-like recorded monologue by an innkeeper rambling on about her room while a pair of weirdly-masked dancers systematically trashes the place to shambles. It’s all very entertaining, and the 60’s style anti-establishment sentiments range from satirical to tragically moving. What, really, have we learned since then?

ARCo Ensemble (rehearsal photo)

The plays seem cannily chosen for the venue: highbrow yet entertaining; accessible, yet slyly revolutionary. But the choice points to a paradox in the very concept of an arts hotel. One of the chief values of contemporary art is to get us to question our assumptions: to make us uncomfortable, in so many words. But the raison d’etre of the hotel industry is to make its guests comfortable. How can hotel art be both service-oriented and prestige art? Is there a way to square this circle?

Here’s a crazy idea: for the last century, art has tried to accommodate the model of science: analyzing, questioning, breaking down, deconstructing, and problematizing society. But one of the greatest powers of art is in making meaning, and meaning comes from feelings, not intellect; relationships, not reductive components. Ironically, this analytic tendency of art, whether modern or postmodern, has surrendered art’s meaning-making power to commercial and political interests that can be least trusted to use it for the common good. What if, instead of modeling itself on physics, art embraced biology as its inspiration? Living systems are all about interconnections: symbiosis, ecologies, evolution, metamorphosis, emergence—the functioning of sense qualities and feelings that generate value and meaning for all living things. “Bio-art” would be dedicated to exploring the pulsing, sensuous world that is the special provenance of the arts; not just deconstructing and critiquing, but synthesizing, bringing contraries together in alchemical experiments that could become the crucibles for the culture of the future. Just a thought.

In America Hurrah—especially Motel, with its performative deconstruction of the idea of comfort—the ARCo Ensemble has thrown down their gauntlet, effectively clearing the ground of our expectations for safe, comfortable theater. The program vision statement proclaims their goals as transformation: “Deconstructing the old,” and “Birthing the new.” As one who finds naturalistic talky dramas limited and generally dull, I look forward to seeing where they go next.

at Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel
America Hurrah
by Jean-Claude van Itallie

playing  July 31, August 1, 7, 8, 16, 17, 23, and 24 at 8:00

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